When the writer George Eliot said, ‘animals are such agreeable friends. They ask no questions; they pass no criticisms,’ she was onto something. Many of us know first-hand the comfort of spending time with a non-judgemental pet who will listen to you moan about your boss and let you scratch them behind the ears.
According to educationalists, interacting with animals is even more beneficial for children with special needs. Jenny Duckworth is ‘The Dog Mentor’, a former teacher, dog trainer and NLP coach who combines her skills to advise schools across the UK on the best way to work with an emotional support dog.
She says that although many schools have taken on canine companions in recent years as a way of calming and encouraging vulnerable pupils, it’s a situation that needs careful managing. “The first stage is to assess the dog’s personality,” she explains, “You wouldn’t put a timid dog in the playground, for example, as it would be overwhelmed. It might be better for it to come to school just one or two days a week, or work with small groups of children. A livelier dog, like a spaniel, might need a lot more stimulation.”
Dogs Can Help Children Manage their Emotions
Therapeutic pooches can be a great asset in the classroom in so many ways, Jenny continues. Observing canine behaviour can prompt children to discuss their own motivations and hopes for the future, while understanding that the dog will pick up on their anxiety or anger, encourages them to try and regulate their own moods.
A support dog can also give children with SEN a reason to confront their difficulties, she says. “I worked with one girl with a physical disability who was feeling very negative about herself,” she recalls. “Her parents and the school were worried because she was relying too much on her wheelchair and losing strength. I got her to put the coat on the dog, gave her the lead and she got out of the chair and walked the dog round the playground.
“Another lad wouldn’t go anywhere in the school without wearing ear-defenders because he hated noise,” Jenny carries on. “I asked the teachers if I could try something different. I got him to describe how the dog looked, felt and sounded. He said he could hear the dog panting and that it meant the animal was happy. The boy needed to walk across a crowded dinner-hall to collect his medicine so I asked him if he would do so with the dog, pointing out that he would have to keep listening for the panting. He chose not to use his ear-defenders.”
Animals Show Children a Different Way to Behave
Children with behavioural challenges, such as ADHD, she says, may have got used to being the cheeky one or the class clown. Getting them to walk the dog lets other kids see them being ‘sensible’, giving them a sense of pride and self-confidence.
“Teachers also learn from the experience of having a dog in school,” Jenny concludes. “They can see what the kids love to engage in and that there are different ways of approaching problems.”
Lizzy Thompson, a former primary teacher and horse-riding coach for the disabled, now works as a 1-1 support worker at a mainstream primary school in Kent. She is also studying an animal-assisted therapy course. Her school has recently constructed its own mini-farm with a variety of animals such as pigs, goats and chickens.
Animals Appeal to Children’s Sensory Needs
“I’ve found that children with ADHD, autism, anxiety or SEMH needs, benefit from being there and due to the variety of animals we have, there’s always one they like to spend time with,” she comments. “A lot of the children love doing jobs – whether it’s feeding, collecting eggs, cleaning the enclosures or grooming the animals. They seem to find it calming and definitely have a sensory reaction to holding and stroking them.
“Being outside a classroom setting means there’s no pressure on the children to sit and act in a certain way,” Thompson continues. “I think this allows some of them to talk and have someone listen without judgement or comment.”
Some pupils visit the farm in the mornings before school starts as a way of de-stressing before lessons. The animals, she says, seem to sense what the children need to get them into a better mind-set for learning. “My previous student had PDA and was a reluctant writer,” she continues, “but he started making up stories on Clickr about the animals and the adventures they went on. It was amazing!”